Thomas DiPauli put pros on hold to hone game with Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Professional hockey has its place.

But there’s something unique about the college experience.

Thomas DiPauli, a senior center at Notre Dame, has had every opportunity to take advantage of the play-for-pay game. A fourth-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in 2012, the 5-foot-11, 197-pound DiPauli put his ultimate dream on hold to be part of something rare.

While waiting to do his usual individual work after practice the other day, DiPauli said he sat on the visitors bench – as is customary – and took some time to soak in the atmosphere of the empty Compton Family Ice Arena, while some memories of years gone by flashed through his mind.

He won’t allow himself to become melancholy in his final appearances at home this weekend. He will be a big part of the Irish attack that will battle Northeastern in a best-of-three Hockey East second round playoff series starting Friday.

“After practice, I’ve seen (several seniors) just sitting on the bench looking around,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. “They’re feeling (the end is near), I can tell that. But, they’re enjoying it.

“The important thing, they’re still staying in the moment.”

“(Friday’s series opener) is one of my last home games here,” DiPauli said. “It’s kind of emotional.”

DiPauli is one of the intriguing stories on the Irish roster. He spent the first decade or so of his life in Italy, where he became infatuated with hockey. His family moved to the Chicago area, where his first friend was Vince Hinostroza, who later became a teammate at Notre Dame.

With an eye on the NHL, DiPauli, who is from the northern part of Italy, groomed his game in the U.S. He’s on a path to be a pioneer of sorts since only three other Italian-born athletes have played in the NHL. Ever.

“There’s actually really good hockey in northern Italy,” DiPauli said. “The German leagues and the Swiss leagues are all around there. I’m actually surprised there aren’t more Italian-born players (in the NHL).

“I remember growing up, there were a couple great players I had rivalries with. They’re playing in the German leagues (now).

“(Being the fourth Italian-born player in the NHL) would be pretty cool. I stay in touch with a lot of my friends back home. They’re convinced I’m going to play in the NHL next year.”

The only inkling of DiPauli’s heritage is his last name. No accent in his speech. He can speak conversational Italian with his friends, but feels right at home with the Irish.

“This is the best place. I love this place every day,” said DiPauli, who passed up an opportunity to play professionally last year when college juniors can leave for the NHL. “This year has been the greatest year for me in hockey.

“Coach has given me a lot of responsibility. I had been on the (penalty killing unit) since I was a freshman, but he’s given me more offensive chances last year and this year. I keep producing, so he’s happy with me.”

After struggling with eight goals and nine assists in his first two seasons, DiPauli had eight goals and 21 assists last year. This season, he leads the team with 12 goals, along with 17 assists.

“Freshman and sophomore year, coach would say non-stop, ‘You’ve gotta make plays under pressure.’ Your fast guys. Sometimes, you just have to slow it down,” DiPauli said. “I did that. I slowed down, adjusted. As I adjusted mentally, I was able to go full-speed. Now, I’m at a point where I can make plays going full-speed.”

“He uses his speed more effectively this year,” Jackson said. “He’s taking the puck to the net more consistently. He’s learned to get his game under control.

“Sometimes, speed is a good thing. But, sometimes fast players, their feet move faster than their brains do. His poise improved this year, being able to make a play with that speed. It has slowed the game down a little bit.

“He’s been in a leadership role. From a maturity standpoint, he’s had to learn. He’s a fun-loving kid, smiling all the time, but he’s had to pick his spots about when to be more serious. He’s helped some of the younger guys grow.”

That’ll be DiPauli’s legacy to the Notre Dame program. He delayed an opportunity to chase a lifelong dream in order to make an impact and get better equipped in the moment.

A good definition of what college is about.

Notre Dame’s Thomas DiPauli (14), here handling the puck against Northeastern’s Dalen Hedges earlier this season, has his full focus on Friday's Hockey East playoff matchup with Boston University.(Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

WHO: Notre Dame (19-8-7) vs. Northeastern (18-13-5)

WHERE: Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend

WHAT: Hockey East second round, best-of-three series

WHEN: Friday (7:35 p.m.), Saturday (7:05), Sunday (if necessary, 7:05)

TICKETS: Available

RADIO: New Country 99.9 FM

TV: None